Mobile Manufacturing

Technology and manufacturing have traditionally been closely linked, with technological advances leading to changes in manufacturing – both in products produced in the way they are produced – and changes in manufacturing that affect technology – through making technology more accessible through reducing costs incurred through economies of scale and progress in materials and methods.

Today, a typical manufacturer will rely on a host of technologies, from ERP systems to CNC machines and from PCs to traditional Fax technology. Over the last 10 years we have seen manufacturers adopt such things as webcams to control stock, e-Ban systems to communicate with suppliers and new project management software to manage the development of complex new products and services.

Anticipating future trends we can safely predict that manufacturers will continue to adopt new technologies to take advantages of the capabilities, and cost reductions, they create, and in particular we will see the widespread adoption of low cost communication technologies such as SMS1.

SMS was first introduced in the GSM2 specification in the late 1980’s and was included by Norwegian engineers who wanted a simple messaging system that worked when the user’s mobile phones were switched off or out of signal range. SMS allows up to 160 character messages to be sent to and from a mobile phone. The first SMS was sent in 1992 and by 2002 1 billion SMS per day were exchanged globally.

Given the ability of SMS to reduce operating costs in a number of areas and the low cost and relative ease of adoption of SMS technology, it has widespread applicability to manufacturing and this article explores some of the simplest ways that manufacturers can benefit.

For businesses operating extended or unusual hours it is not always economically possible to maintain a complete set of support staff ‘just in case’ a problem arises. This is particularly so with critical maintenance personnel, senior management and engineers, but with the fact that it is now becoming a social norm for people to carry their mobile phones with them at all times SMS is an ideal way of sending alerts without the need for people to be on site. Obviously, such things as gaining permissions to contact and also setting response times need to be considered, but the net cost is substantially lower than having staff available out of hours ‘just in case’.

Many organisations have a dispersed workforce and in manufacturing certain functions can be dispersed, such as sales teams, field service teams or even engineering teams with different disciplines located at different sites.

SMS provides an ideal communication method for maintaining contact with such dispersed teams, or even managerial staff who are ‘on the shop-floor’ frequently. There are tools now available that allow bulk messages to be sent from a PC to a particular group, such as Clickatell’s Message Pro 3. Although for a more personal communication method, say one to one with a particular sales person, it is possible to use a plug-in to MS Outlook. Many companies including Telemessaging give their outlook plug-ins away free, knowing you are then tied into using their messaging service.

This makes sending and receiving SMS messages as simple as sending and receiving emails and much easier and less time consuming or costly than making bulk telephone calls to pass a message to even a small dispersed team, and as it is a two way process, the team are able to reply from their phones and it will be received as an email message.

Materials are the lifeblood of manufacturing and knowing where your materials are and whether they have reached the customer or are on their way from a supplier is an essential part of the role of many people inside manufacturers. Whilst it is becoming increasingly common to use RFID3 in the role of tracking individual items, the more widespread availability of SMS technology allows the drivers of vehicles to be tracked and therefore for entire shipments to be monitored and arrivals predicted.

Coupled with this is the frequent need to know where critical personnel are (such as sales or managerial personnel who may be on the road from site to site) and using this to anticipate arrival times.

For a mobile to operate it has to be connected to a nearby base station. As the site of the base station is known it is also possible to know the location of a mobile. The accuracy of the location is dependent upon the density of base stations and can be from tens of meters to a few hundred metres. As a general rule of thumb, the greater the population density, the greater the accuracy of the location.

Location information is very sensitive and is only provided in particular circumstances and normally requires the owner of the mobile to explicitly give permission for its use. It is possible for a user to give permission of location in a tacit manner. For example we will use a sales situation where a new product had been launched and is available only at certain stores. Adverts could be produced that included the option “Text Location to [phone number] for your nearest store”. This technology is often called “Call to action” and by responding to an advert the mobile owner has tacitly agreed for you to use their location information on a one-off basis. The system could use their location to send them the address or directions to the nearest store selling the product.

With an increasing number of manufacturers selling direct via the internet or even supplying straight to retail outlets, SMS has the capability to play a big part in assisting to reduce overall sales costs.

It has become possible for information sent in response to a text request from a customer (or distributor) to be generated directly off a website with no major modifications to existing IT systems and no changes to business processes. Roger Francis, CEO of Make My Show (makemyshow.com), a company offering request based services, says “…a typical client integration takes less than a day.” So text requests can provide a powerful, but simple, mechanism to get product information into customer’s hands quickly and if information is being fed from a website it is possible to capture the phone number of the person who requested the information. So when a member of the sales team returns to their office they could log into the website and be given full information of the products that have been requested and the details of who has requested them with a simple press of a button.

In fact using the “Call to action” technology offers a superb sales and product information channel. It can not only be used for standard SMS text messages but for MMS4 that allows you to add images, audio clips and video clips all delivered directly to a mobile. Within a few seconds of seeing an advert a potential customer can be watching a 15-30 second video clip of your product.

With the growing use of ‘call off’ contracts with suppliers, where a customer commits to ordering 10,000 of an item but only pays for them as they ‘call them off’ and use them (say in batches of 1,000), it is possible to use SMS to place the replenishment order and this can even be controlled by the operator working on the line or their immediate supervisor, significantly reducing the burden on procurement personnel whilst speeding up the procurement process.

This system can work alongside traditional procurement processes for more expensive items, as well as being integrated into other ‘automated call off’ technologies such as webcams (which allow suppliers to visually track stock levels left in certain locations) or e-bans (which are standardised emails which trigger a replenishment order against a set call off contract).

SMS messages can be used to check availability of people, so saving time and money. Prior to a delivery (or even a sales trip) it is possible to send a message that reads “Your goods will be arriving the next 30 minutes – is someone available for receipt?” If there is no response then the delivery could be postponed saving the cost of a wasted trip. Deliveries are another good example of location information, in response to the question “Where is my delivery?” It would be possible to provide a map on a website giving the location of a customer’s delivery.

To enable manufacturers to make use of SMS technology for commercial purposes using a PC, there are two main mechanisms used to send SMS messages from a computer, one is via a standard mobile phone the other is via an Internet based SMS gateway, such as the one offered by MX Telecoms.

To send an SMS from a computer via a mobile, they are first connected via a cable.

Software on the computer then allows messages to be sent and received via the mobile phone. As the mobile is sending the messages the cost is the same as sending normal SMS messages from the phone – which is dependent upon the tariff.

The second and most common method for sending SMS messages from a computer is through an Internet SMS gateway. The SMS Gateway is the link between the internet and the operator’s cellular network. When you send or receive SMS messages from a computer, what you actually do is talk to the SMS gateway via the internet. There are several methods for communicating with gateways including very simple options such as sending them email. When using an SMS gateway, messages are carried in bulk and used as needed.